By Clarence Lusane | –
( Tomdispatch.com ) – On February 19, 1942, two months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066. It initiated a Department of Defense program that resulted in the rounding up and incarceration of about 122,000 individuals of Japanese descent. They were to be placed in federal “relocation centers” that would popularly become known as “internment camps.” As it happened, they were neither. They were prisons set up to house and so violate the civil and human rights of a despised and racially different group defined as “the enemy.”
Although that executive order did not, in fact, mention a specific ethnic or racial group, it was clearly understood that the prisons were not being established for citizens or residents of German or Italian descent, the other two nations then at war with the United States. While not a single person of Japanese ancestry was found to have spied on this country or to have committed acts of sabotage against it, pro-Mussolini and pro-Hitler demonstrations, rallies, and propaganda had been commonplace. Before the war, fascist groups had been allowed to organize and spread propaganda from coast to coast. Some even had influence over and alliances with members of Congress, mainstream journalists, and well-known scholars.
Such a travesty of justice was not just being pushed by Roosevelt, one of the most liberal presidents in American history, but by notables like California judge Earl Warren (later to become a liberal Supreme Court justice) and renowned journalist Edward R. Murrow.
Although lawsuits challenging the prison camps were filed, the Supreme Court allowed them to continue to operate. More than half of those incarcerated were U.S. citizens. None had been charged with any crimes. Often under the banner (made popular again in our time) of “America First,” far-right, racist policies had been put in place and millions suffered from them.
The openly discussed basis for unity in those years was, at least in part, opposition to non-Aryans and non-Protestants, whether they were Japanese, Jewish, or African American.
In 1981, 36 years after World War II ended with the atomic bombing of two Japanese cities, a Presidential Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians issued a report making clear that the imprisonment of Americans of Japanese descent in such striking numbers “was not justified by military necessity, and the decisions which followed from it… were not driven by analysis of military conditions. The broad historical causes which shaped these decisions were race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”
It’s important to keep this history in mind since Donald Trump and his MAGA associates are planning to emulate it on a grand scale in a second (and what they hope will be a never-ending) administration. Promises of new “camps,” should The Donald be elected a second time in 2024, are already pouring out of Trumpworld. These would be “huge camps” for migrants near the border with Mexico, as the New York Times reported recently, “to detain people while their cases are processed and they await deportation flights.” To ensure that Congress has no direct role in funding them, they will be built and operated with money taken directly from the military budget.
Just to be clear, Trump isn’t against all immigrants. Anything but. After all, he married two, one from the Czech Republic and the other from Slovenia, countries that most Americans would have to google to find on a map of Europe. Instead, the targets of the pending Trumpian anti-immigrant tsunami will, of course, be individuals and families from the global South. The racism embedded in such a future effort isn’t beside the point, it is the point.
Trump’s former adviser and fellow xenophobe, Stephen Miller, stated that such a new administration would build “camps” — think: prisons — that could house up to a million undocumented immigrants while preparing them for mass deportations. As he told the New York Times, “Any activists who doubt President Trump’s resolve in the slightest are making a drastic error: Trump will unleash the vast arsenal of federal powers to implement the most spectacular migration crackdown. The immigration legal activists won’t know what’s happening.”
And rest assured about one thing: the next Trump administration won’t just go after undocumented immigrants trying to enter the country. It will build an unprecedented gulag system to round up and deport millions of people of color, one that would be unimaginable if those undocumented immigrants came from Canada or Denmark. The Trump gang has stated that they will end TPS (temporary protected status), reinstate the former president’s Muslim ban, reimpose and expand health restrictions on asylum seekers, revoke visas for foreign students who participated in protests against recent Israeli actions, shut down the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, and deport immigrants who had been allowed into the United States for humanitarian reasons.
Mind you, Trump proposed or tried to institute much of this while still in office, only to be thwarted by his administration’s ineptitude, Democratic resistance, grassroots organizing, and the courts. If, in the wake of the 2024 election, the GOP were to gain control over both chambers of Congress as well as the White House — a formula that would ensure the appointment of ever more Trump-friendly federal judges — success (as he defines it) will be a given for many of these efforts.
When Trump tells his followers that “Our cruel and vindictive political class is not just coming after me — they are coming after YOU,” he means that he hates the very same people they do and will provide the retribution for all the harm supposedly done to them by immigrants (of color), Muslims, Blacks, Latinos, Asians, Native peoples, feminists, and other enemies.
The Fascist Aims of America First
While Trump is the likely GOP nominee in 2024, the election is still a year away and any number of unforeseen developments could lead to someone else being nominated. At this moment, the other potential Republican candidates are Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, business executive Vivek Ramaswamy, and former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Christie excepted, there isn’t a sliver of policy difference between any of them and Trump. And notably, Christie supported Trump for nearly all of his administration. In addition, each of them would need the former president’s far-right MAGA base to win the nomination.
Trump’s people have cloaked themselves in an “America First” aura without in any way owning that as a meme. In fact, it harks back both to the second rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and the American fascist movement of the 1930s. By the mid-1920s, the KKK had ballooned to between three and eight million members and, as scholar Sarah Churchwell notes in her remarkable book Behold, America: A History of America First and the American Dream, it had already adopted “America First” as a motto.
While both Democratic President Woodrow Wilson and Republican Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge had used the term earlier to promote American isolationism, nativism, and “exceptionalism,” it was the KKK that truly embraced its white supremacist core ethos. As one example, 1,400 Klansmen chanted “America First” as they marched in a Memorial Day parade in Queens, New York, in 1927. And consider it more than ironic that, as Churchwell documents, their presence evolved into a riot that led to the arrests of five Klansmen, one bystander (by mistake), and under circumstances that remain less than clear, Fred Trump, the father of the future 45th president of the United States.
In 1940, the America First Committee (AFC) was founded. At its height, it would have more than 800,000 members. Initially, it was seen as isolationist — that is, against American entry into the war already being waged in Europe — and even anti-imperialist. As a result, its ranks initially included liberals, progressives, and socialists, as well as conservatives, libertarians, and avowed fascists. The latter, however, would eventually come to dominate, especially after the nation’s leading anti-Semite and pro-Hitler celebrity, pilot Charles Lindbergh, became its most popular spokesperson. The fascist-loving AFC then joined other U.S.-based far-right groups in celebrating German nazism and Italian fascism, while making America First their rallying cry.
Of course, the historically challenged Donald Trump undoubtedly doesn’t know much, if anything, about this history. But give him full credit. From the beginning, with the instincts of both a fascist and a white nationalist, he intuitively grasped the mobilizing value of seemingly patriotic but xenophobic slogans. Count on one thing, though: some of his allies know all about the noxious roots of “America First” and still embrace it. Such jingoistic patriotism has, in fact, become a thinly veiled cover for a revised and expansive contemporary version of white nationalism.
The proliferation of America First groups run by former Trump staffers and supporters is daunting. The dizzying array of them includes America First Legal, America First Action, America First Policies, America First Policy Institute, America First P.A.C.T. (Protecting America’s Constitution and Traditions), America First Foundation/America First Political Action Conference, and America First 2.0, the latter a contribution from Republican presidential aspirant Vivek Ramaswamy.
America First Legal is run by Stephen Miller and promotes itself as an alternative to the American Civil Liberties Union, but its deepest focus is on defending whiteness and amplifying Miller’s white nationalist proclivities. During the 2022 midterm election cycle, it typically produced radio and television ads like this fact-free one:
“When did racism against white people become OK? Joe Biden put white people last in line for Covid relief funds. Kamala Harris said disaster aid should go to non-white citizens first. Liberal politicians block access to medicine based on skin color. Progressive corporations, airlines, universities all openly discriminate against white Americans. Racism is always wrong. The left’s anti-white bigotry must stop. We are all entitled to equal treatment under the law.”
Decrying (fake) racism against whites fits well with Trump’s hysterical, desperate accusations that Georgia’s Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, New York Attorney General Letitia James, and Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg are all “racists” out to prosecute him because he’s white, not because he broke the law in their jurisdictions. (So far, none of Trump’s Black supporters have echoed that call — perhaps a bridge too far even for them — but Miller and others on the far right certainly have.)
Linda McMahon, former head of the Small Business Administration under Trump, is now the president of the America First Policy Institute, which claims that its guiding principles are “liberty, free enterprise, national greatness, American military superiority, foreign-policy engagement in the American interest, and the primacy of American workers, families, and communities in all we do.” That well-funded group takes on policy and culture war issues. You undoubtedly won’t be surprised to learn that it recently held a gala at — yes! — Mar-a-Lago.
The America First P.A.C.T., led by former Arizona Republican Party chair Kelli Ward, focuses on running state candidates on a far-right MAGA agenda and prioritizes raising funds for GOP candidates. Blasted across its website is the phrase “A weak republican is more dangerous than a democrat.” Ward is under investigation in Arizona for her alleged involvement in a 2022 fake-elector plot there.
Perhaps this country’s best-known white nationalist (and former Trump dinner guest) Nick Fuentes is the founder and president of the America First Foundation. It sponsors the annual America First Political Action Conference, an unabashed gathering of white supremacists and other far-right and extremist elements. Fuentes founded AFPAC because he thought the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) was too moderate. However, the political distance between the more traditional CPAC and AFPAC has narrowed. Noted Islamophobe Michelle Malkin, for example, spoke at both in 2019, as did conservative journalist Jon Miller in 2020. Neither Malkin, who is Asian, nor Miller, who is African American, called out Fuentes and other bigots at the conferences on their racism.
The 2022 AFPAC conference featured a who’s who of contemporary American extremists, including disgraced former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, defeated Arizona election-denier Kari Lake, longtime founder and publisher of the white supremacist American Renaissance Jared Taylor, Florida-based Islamophobe and anti-immigrant warrior Laura Loomer, extremist activist Milo Yiannopoulos, and former too-toxic-for-even-the-House-Republicans Representative Steve King. Current Republican congress members who have spoken at AFPAC include (you undoubtedly won’t be surprised to learn) Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar.
Violence as Politics
Like fascists and racists of old, Donald Trump and the America First crowd are demonizing and dehumanizing their opponents. In October 1923, Klan leader and Imperial Wizard Hiram Evans gave a fiery anti-immigrant speech in Texas railing against the “polluting streams of pollution from abroad” that immigrants were bringing to the United States. This October, exactly 100 years later, Trump gave an interview to the far-right National Pulse in which he declared that immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country.”
In his 2024 campaign, he’s not only planning to go after immigrants, but a broader group of liberal and progressive citizens and even Republicans who stand in the way of his fevered lust for heading a genuinely authoritarian government. If he returns to the Oval Office, he’s already declared that he’ll “root out” what he’s called “communists, Marxists, fascists and the radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country.”
“Vermin” (a classic Hitlerian word choice) and those who would “poison” the nation must be wiped out, annihilated. Responding to criticism of such language, Trump campaign spokesperson Steven Cheung called the very notion “ridiculous,” even as he reinforced the point by insisting that the former president’s critics suffered from “Trump Derangement Syndrome” and “their entire existence will be crushed when President Trump returns to the White House.”
None of what Trump and his allies plan to do is likely to be passively accepted. In fact, they’re already anticipating a massive popular revolt and preparing for it. As the Wall Street Journal noted, in 2020 Trump first contemplated invoking the Insurrection Act, which allows a president to employ the military to enforce federal laws under special circumstances, to break up protests related to the murder of George Floyd and other African Americans by the police and racists. He was talked down. Its use was then suggested by Trump ally Roger Stone and evidently considered by the president as a way to “put down” any “leftwing protests” related to the 2020 election. Again, the idea went nowhere.
The third time, however, could be the deadly charm. The Washington Post has reported that Trump is now considering invoking the Insurrection Act on his first day back in office. One thing is certain: should he somehow, despite four criminal indictments and multiple trials, return to the White House on January 20, 2025, we can’t say we weren’t warned.
Copyright 2023 Clarence Lusane